No, sex-trafficking satanists have not infested DCS. The real problems are way worse.

Here’s the good news: Contrary to what one state legislator seems to believe, the Arizona Department of Child Safety is not in the grip of a global satanic sex trafficking cabal. Here’s the bad news: The real problems at DCS are way worse.

If it were just a few satanists in high places, all we’d have to do is weed them out.  But the real problems at DCS are rooted in a culture that has plagued the mostly well-meaning people working in Arizona child welfare for decades: the false assumption that child removal equals child safety.  The result is a system that makes all Arizona children less safe.

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Confronted by horrible cases of child abuse deaths, the knee-jerk assumption is that the system bends over backwards to keep children with bad parents.  So, within days of taking office in 2003, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano told caseworkers: “Err on the side of protecting the child, and we’ll sort it out later.”

Two decades later, Arizona still hasn’t sorted it out.

Napolitano set off a foster-care panic, a sharp sudden increase in needless removal of children from their homes.  It happens all over the country, but in most places, after a year or two, everyone calms down.  The tragic exception is Arizona.

Consider:

  • In 2021, the most recent year for which national comparative data are available, Arizona took children from their parents at a rate more than 70% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. Even with recent improvements, Arizona still is at least 40% above the national average. Does anyone really think Arizona children are 40% safer than the national average?
  • Again, even with recent improvements, children are torn from their parents in Maricopa County at the highest rate among America’s largest municipalities.
  • In Maricopa County, nearly two-thirds of Black children will be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. Nearly 15% of Native American children, nearly 15% of Hispanic children and nearly 20% of Black children will be forced into foster care.
  • The take-the-child-and-run mentality is so deeply ingrained that an entire office’s caseworkers thought it would be a great idea to dress up in T-shirts that said “professional kidnapper.”
  • It’s so ingrained that, in Chandler, police broke down the door of a family home and entered, guns drawn, because a child had been reported to DCS for having a high fever.

Napolitano and her successors in both parties got it wrong. None of this protects children.

Most cases are nothing like the horror stories; far more common are cases in which poverty is confused with neglect. No wonder in typical cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children forced to endure the enormous inherent trauma of placement in foster care.

The Arizona mentality also exposes children to the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. That’s bad enough in normal times, with multiple independent studies finding abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes and far worse rates in group homes and institutions. Arizona’s never-ending foster-care panic compounds the problem, creating an artificial “shortage” of placements so bad that DCS deliberately looks the other way at abuse. No wonder living at the mercy of DCS is so bad young people think even the streets would be better.

Even that isn’t the worst of it. All those false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases steal time from finding the children in real danger. The Arizona take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe.

Twenty years after Napolitano got it so wrong it looked like Gov. Katie Hobbs would get it right when she named Matthew Stewart to “transform” DCS. But within two months, she caved to Republican pressure, fired him and replaced him with David Lujan, who immediately declared he was “not looking to do anything radical at this agency.”

But to make Arizona children safe, radical change is essential, starting with a laser focus on ameliorating poverty and ensuring due process rights for families, including high-quality defense counsel.

There are people of goodwill in both parties who get this. But moving a system that’s been getting it so wrong for so long won’t be easy. In fact, anyone who tries is going to have a devil of a time.

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